An Interview with Stephen Angell. Leatherock Professor of Quaker Studies at Earlham School of Religion.
NOTE: Wilmington Yearly Meeting comprises three Quarterly Meetings, two in southwest Ohio, and a third in eastern Tennessee, three hundred miles south. The group is mostly pastoral and programmed, and has been affiliated with Friends United Meeting.
A Friendly Letter (AFL): Steve Angell (SA), thanks for doing this. So give us the scoop: has there been yet another yearly meeting split? Which one, when, and about what?
SA: The topic today is Wilmington Yearly Meeting, one of the smallest North American yearly meetings in Friends United Meeting. Its congregations are located in southwestern Ohio and Tennessee. ( A history of WYM to 1940 is online here.) The controversy is longstanding, and the background to the current difficulties is covered in Quaker Theology #30-31.
But the current intense phase arose in September 2016, when Cincinnati Friends Meeting, a semi-programmed meeting, held a wedding under its care for two women.
This event stirred up controversy over a set of issues that we’ve seen before, including Biblical interpretation, the authority of the yearly meeting, and the autonomy of monthly meetings.
(AFL): So the key background issues here will be familiar to most American Friends. But to be more specific, in Wilmington YM (WYM) the situation seems to have come to a head after the approval of something called the Fairview Minute. Quaker Theology published your first report on this last winter, in Issue #30-#31. But can you remind us briefly about Wilmington YM, about what Fairview is, the thrust of its minute, and the reaction it evoked?
SA: Fairview Meeting approved a minute that proposed that the yearly meeting not interfere with local meetings’ course of action “on sensitive and complex issues” such as who they would marry. Many Wilmington Friends, and Friends meetings, that have not yet come to clearness to conduct same-gender marriages embraced the Fairview Minute, thus taking a stand on behalf of monthly meeting autonomy as it relates to issues such as marriage. Many other Friends firmly opposed the Fairview meeting, insisting that the Cincinnati Friends Meeting be disciplined for holding a same-gender marriage under its care.
(AFL): We’re talking about this now, at the beginning of August 2018, because WYM just had its sessions on July 26-29, and there were some pretty specific actions there. Can you describe what happened?
SA: In the past year, it has become clear that WYM Friends are at an impasse, having unity neither to embrace the Fairview Meeting, nor to discipline Cincinnati Friends Meeting. Some Friends who oppose both same-gender marriage and the Fairview Minute feel that their only recourse at this point is to sever ties with Wilmington Yearly Meeting. At sessions the last week of July, the disaffiliation [that’s their term] of five meetings (two in Ohio and three in Tennessee) was approved: Cuba Friends Meeting, Friendsville Friends Meeting, Friends Church Nashville Preparatory Meeting, Hardins Creek Friends Church, and Rafter Chapel Friends Church.
(AFL): So five WYM meetings of a (previous total of 28) have now left, or in their term, “disaffiliated.” You told me earlier that this is unlikely to be the last of the departures. What’s your best guess as to how many more may go before this split is finished?
SA: As many as ten more meetings are likely to leave over the coming year or so. If that turns out to be the case, Wilmington Yearly Meeting will be left with 13 of the 28 meetings it had as of July 1, 2018.
(AFL): You told me that the proceedings last weekend were reasonably calm, as everyone pretty well knew where everyone stood. But there was one exchange that was unexpected. What was that about?
SA: A Friend from a meeting that is likely to disaffiliate (but has not yet done so) complained that the meetings who continue to hold to the truths that WYM Friends have held, that marriage is between one man and one woman, should not have to be the ones to leave the yearly meeting. Instead, in her view, it should be the Friends who are changing doctrine who should leave.
This evoked a response from Friends who support the Fairview Minute. One part of the response by a Cincinnati Friend confronted the view of those disaffiliating that current leadings can never contradict the Scriptures. This derives from a portion of seventeenth-century Quaker theologian Robert Barclay’s exposition of the place of the Scriptures in Quaker faith and practice. This Cincinnati Friend pointed out that Barclay also said that the Scripture is not the ultimate authority for Friends, that the Spirit is the ultimate authority for Friends, to which the Scripture is secondary. Thus, both those remaining with WYM, and those disaffiliating, draw one of their core arguments from the writings of Barclay.
(AFL): Let me try to be clear on this: was the key point of contention at WYM, at least as stated, not the issue of same sex marriage itself, but more what the YM should do about meetings that were willing to tolerate being in a yearly meeting where some other meetings do support same sex marriage? [Note: An extensive collection of minutes from meetings in WYM, including the Fairview Minute, is in Attachment #4: : INDIVIDUAL MEETING STATEMENTS ON SAME SEX MARRIAGE AND/OR WYM UNITY” of the 2017 WYM Minutes, online in full here.]
SA: Great question. While that seems generally to be true, let me hasten to add that, among the constellation of areas of disagreement, there is no consensus among the Friends staying and those disaffiliating as to which area of disagreement is paramount. Many Friends disaffiliating see the lack of fidelity to a literal interpretation of Scripture, at least as they understand it, as a paramount issue. When addressing the grounds for the current set of disagreements, an initial draft of the WYM Epistle specified that “Biblical interpretation is at the heart of our uneasiness and distrust.” After some discussion on the floor of the yearly meeting on the last day of sessions, the final version of the Epistle expanded the exposition of the grounds for disagreement as follows:
“We agreed that Biblical interpretation is at the heart of our uneasiness and distrust, and that we are not able to come to the same place in how we read the scriptures, or in how we view the autonomy of the Monthly Meetings and the authority of the Yearly Meeting. This is evidenced by our disagreement regarding the Christian understanding of marriage.”
Perhaps one could say that the decisive defining line of disagreement was between those who respected the autonomy of monthly meetings, and, on the other hand, those who wished that monthly meetings would subordinate themselves through mutual submission to an understanding of Christian doctrine that would define marriage as between one man and one woman. Almost any formulation ends up invoking at some point the entire constellation of issues. It can be seen as a hologram.
(AFL): Was there any indication of what the non-tolerationists thought ought to be done with meetings which, though disapproving of same sex marriage themselves, were willing to tolerate other meetings in WYM that did approve of it? Am I right in inferring that forcing out the tolerant meetings would seem to be the logical outcome of this stance? Isn’t that what happened in another recent YM split in the region? Did anyone in WYM suggest that? If not, what other options were mentioned, if any?
SA: Meetings that favor disaffiliation want to separate themselves completely from any meeting that supports the autonomy of monthly meetings within WYM to choose for themselves what marriages to conduct and how. This is a fundamental point for most disaffiliating meetings. They do not want to remain in the same Yearly Meeting nor the same Quarterly Meeting with meetings that do not favor disciplining other meetings that hold same-gender marriages under their care.
(AFL): You told me that at least one pastor argued that same sex marriage was bad or sinful, but that splitting the YM was even worse? Can you clarify that line of argument for us?
SA: I suppose that I can try. Unity in Christian Churches has been an important ideal from the beginning. It has been honored at least as much in the breach as in the observance. The impressive unity between the parties of James and Paul at the Jerusalem council in 49 was followed in short order by the quarreling and (sinful?) parting of long-time ministry co-laborers Paul and Barnabas, at least in the telling of the book of Acts. So those who argue against disaffiliation in WYM, see and proclaim how important the ideal (and hopefully the reality) of Christian and Quaker unity is, even with those with whom they are in disagreement on some aspects of Quaker faith and practice.
(AFL): Any idea of where the meetings that have left (or will soon leave) WYM might end up? In another existing YM? Starting a new association? Independent?
SA: The short answer is no, we’ll just have to wait and see. Let me try a longer answer, too. Wilmington Yearly Meeting is encouraging those meetings that disaffiliate to find other yearly meeting associations, arguing that they are vital for fellowship and accountability. Monthly Meetings that leave their yearly meetings (and now I’m not just discussing WYM) often have experienced significant trauma and are wary of any yearly meeting authority which will try to compel their submission to something they are not conscientiously led to do on their own. So whether they will follow WYM’s advice remains to be seen. Leadership will need to step up among disaffiliating meetings in order to make new yearly meeting ties happen. This seems possible. Possibilities might include affiliating with Indiana Yearly Meeting, or affiliating with Evangelical Friends, or starting their own yearly meeting.
(AFL): A journal you help edit, Quaker Theology, has been reporting on related yearly meeting divisions since 2003. (So has this blog!) You did much of that reporting. Wilmington becomes the fifth YM in this recent wave of splits. As a professor of Quaker Studies, what are your thoughts about these fifteen years of internal struggle? Do these problems simply mirror & echo outside politics & “culture wars”? Can you see any significance for U.S. or world Quakerism?
SA: See below.
(AFL): Will you be writing a fuller report on WYM for Quaker Theology?
SA: Yes, and I hope to address many of those broader issues in that fuller report.